Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of “An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. It is alternate history/fantasy and was published in the collection An Agent of Utopia, released by Small Beer Press. Duncan won a Nebula in 2012 for the novelette “Close Encounters.” Full disclosure: Duncan is a member of the Board of Directors of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Thomas More has been arrested for treason against King Henry VIII and imprisoned. Aliquo, an agent of Utopia, arrives in the city of London and arranges with the gaoler to meet with More, offers him assistance in escaping the king’s anger. More, who is intent on self-flagellation, refuses. He is tried, sentenced and executed. Afterward, his head is displayed on a pike on London Bridge. Aliquo is then approached by More’s daughter Margaret to steal the head away so she can bury it respectfully. Can Aliquo accomplish this task for her?

This starts off with a lot of potential. More is a historical figure and the story follows the history faithfully, including the part where More’s daughter Margaret is thought responsible for the theft of More’s head from London Bridge. Aliquo is a great addition to the plot, a romantic figure out of More’s best-known and most controversial literary work. The character seems quite taken by Margaret, and either possesses supernatural powers or else is the resident James Bond, ready to accomplish prison breaks and master thefts at will. The narrative is written in the language of the day, and there is some very nice imagery in the description of the city and the characters.

On the not so great side, this seems to lose its way as we get further along, as if Duncan lost confidence in his plot and his characters. He never follows up on the interesting connection to Utopia, sticking with events in London instead. The plot drifts off toward horror, as Aliquo becomes haunted by More’s voice. Why? Then there’s a postscript where Aliquo turns out to be a woman in disguise and writes a denunciation of abuses in her homeland. I guess this is supposed to be a twist ending, but it just looks like a different story to me, that got pasted on here by accident. Is the diatribe to make it more politically correct?

Two and a half stars for failure to make good sense.

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